Open field system

From Academic Kids

The open field system was the prevalent agricultural system in Europe from the Dark Ages to as recently as the 20th century in places. From the 12th century onwards it was gradually replaced by Inclosure.

Open fields appeared to have developed in the medieval period, and were particularly well suited to the very heavy ploughs that were used to cut through the heavy clay soil in North West Europe. Because the ploughs were so heavy, it made more sense to have as long a way as possible to pull them before trying to turn them around. The ox teams which pulled the ploughs were also very expensive, and thus tended to be shared among the families of a village.

Each village would be surrounded by several large open fields, usually not physically divided from each other, with each field containing a different crop as part of a three field crop rotation. The fields would be split into a number of furlongs (200 m), each of which would be subdivided into strips covering an area of half an acre (2,000 m²) or less. Each villager was allocated a set number of strips in each field (traditionally about thirty) which they would subsistence farm. The strips were generally allocated in a public meeting at the start of the year. The individual holdings were widely scattered, so that no single farmer would end up with all the good or bad land. Ploughing techniques used one or other form of ridge and furrow cultivation to prepare the land for drainage and planting.

In addition to the three fields, there would be common land where the villagers would graze their livestock, woodland for the pigs, and a communal village green for social events. The ploughed fields could also be used for grazing outside the growing season.

As populations increased, the available land diminished as more strips were required. From the late Middle Ages onwards, a gradual movement towards consolidation took place as small plots were amalgamated into fewer but larger holdings, with a corresponding increase in the power of the landowners.

Open Fields in England

Contrary to popular belief, not all areas of England had open-field farming in the medieval period. Parts of south-east England, notably parts of Essex and Kent retained a pre-Roman system of farming in small square enclosed fields. In much of west and north-west England, fields were similarly either never open, or early enclosed. The primary area of open field management was in the lowland areas of England in a broad swath from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire diagonally across England to the south, taking in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, large areas of the Midlands, and most of south central England. This area was some of the most populous and profitable; it was also the main grain growing region (as opposed to pastoral farming).

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields. In Great Britain, the process sped up during the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church and the government, particularly depopulating enclosure, and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the tide of elite opinion began to turn towards support for enclosure, and rate of enclosure increased in the seventeenth century. This led to a series of government acts addressing individual regions, which were given a common framework in the Inclosure Consolidation Act of 1801.

Throughout the 19th century, the developments in Britain were exported across the world, and the various contributions made upon the working population by warfare and increased mechanization finally finished the open field system off. However, to this day there is still more communally managed open agricultural land in Continental Europe than in England.

There is one village in England where the open field system continues to be used: the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire. It is thought that its anomalous survival is due to two early 19th century landowners' inability to agree on how the land was to be inclosed, thus resulting in the perpetuation of the status quo.

Please also see enclosure.

External links and references

  • Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside (1986). (On Britain, primarily England)
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